Spanning the Border Between High School and College—And Reshaping the Landscape of Public Education
The most inhospitable terrain in America’s education system has always been the no man’s land between high school and college, which the vast majority of students were neither expected nor prepared to traverse.
But the structures, policies, and practices that have long served to narrow access to postsecondary education are slowly but steadily giving way.
In a growing number of states, improving the rigor and relevance of high school coursework has risen to the top of the education reform agenda. Initiatives range from raising graduation requirements, to aligning high school assessments with college-entrance and -placement tests, to abandoning the conventional three-track curriculum in favor of a single, more challenging “core” curriculum.
These reforms reflect a growing consensus: Rather than sorting college-bound students from the non-college-bound, as they traditionally have done, high schools ought to prepare each and every student for postsecondary education and training.
At the same time, learning opportunities that span the border between high school and college have grown dramatically over the past decade, as have the number and range of students who take advantage of them.
All but a handful of states now permit—and 18 states have gone so far as to mandate—programs that allow students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously by taking courses at their schools, on college campuses, or online. An estimated 2 million young people participate in “dual credit” and “dual enrollment” programs each year, the U.S. Department of Education reported recently.
Even more significant is the emergence of innovative options that go well beyond providing a taste of college or a one- or two-course head start. Such programs bridge the divided structures of our education system, combining high school and college-level work into a seamless course of study that may start as early as 8th or 9th grade.
In tech-prep programs, now available in nearly half the nation’s high schools, as students work toward their high school diplomas, they also rack up community college credits to put toward associate’s degrees. Tech-prep programs are geared especially toward students interested in high-skill fields like engineering, health care, business, or the mechanical, industrial, and practical arts.
Other programs are designed specifically for students with economic and/or educational disadvantages. “Middle college” and “early college” high schools, typically located on or adjacent to community college campuses, provide academically challenging programs that lead to both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree or enough credits to enter a four-year college as a junior.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several other philanthropies recently launched a $120 million initiative aimed at quadrupling the number of early-college high schools—from roughly 50 to nearly 200—over the next several years. And President Bush has proposed a $125 million grant program to help states increase access to dual enrollment for at-risk students.
The rapid growth and diversification of dual- enrollment options has created what the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a 2001 report, calls “a new arena of educational practice” that could profoundly affect the academic experiences and opportunities of virtually all high school students.
But it is an arena, the report warns, in which state and federal authorities, individual schools and districts, and higher education institutions “are too frequently acting in isolation, and in the absence of either clear principles or an appreciation of unintended consequences.”
More recent studies of the dual-enrollment phenomenon paint a similar picture: a rapidly growing movement with enormous appeal and potential, but which so far lacks a solid basis for decisionmaking in areas ranging from program design, to funding, to regulation.
A number of small-scale studies over the past several years suggest that students who take advantage of postsecondary options earn higher grades in college, require less remediation, and have higher rates of persistence and retention.
Still, the need for more reliable and comprehensive information on these programs and the students who participate in them is clear and increasingly urgent. We need to explore more fully, and document more conclusively, their impact on students’ transition into and through postsecondary education.
Some of the existing research also points to the crucial importance of certain program features.
Anyone who has been involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating dual-enrollment programs—as I have been for the past 20 years—knows that successful programs share several key characteristics: an emphasis on collaboration and a strong sense of connectedness among both institutions and individuals; an unwavering focus on the needs and interests of students; and adequate and equitable funding.
Program course offerings should complement and enhance the high school curriculum, rather than supplant it. Program funding should take into account the importance of counseling, placement, testing, and other support services for dual enrollees. And regardless of where courses are taught—at the high school or on a college campus—they should be staffed by qualified college faculty members.
States should provide adequate and equitable funding for dual-enrollment programs. Arrangements such as those used in North Carolina and Michigan, where high schools and colleges share the funding burden for dually enrolled students, ensure that economically disadvantaged students will not be excluded from programs because of their inability to pay tuition.
Attention should be given, too, to state policies and regulations that may have a significant impact on the quality and accessibility of dual-enrollment programs.
In some cases, the spread of dual-enrollment programs may be inhibited by policies, such as limits on course location, that complicate implementation and discourage innovation at the institutional level.
In addition, the tuition and admissions requirements of many programs serve to screen out the very students—those with economic and educational disadvantages—who might benefit from them most.
The continuing growth and diversification of postsecondary options requires something other than a one-size-fits-all policy approach. States should consider tailoring dual-enrollment policies and regulations to the differing goals of programs—those that offer enrichment and acceleration for high-achieving college-bound students, and those targeted at a wider range of students.
Closer attention should be given to balancing the needs of academically oriented students with those of technically oriented students. One way to broaden participation is the creation of career and technical pathways that offer dual-enrollment credit for both technical and academic courses.
It is also vital to identify and address the barriers that shut many underrepresented students out of participating in dual-enrollment programs: the lack of rigorous curricula at the high schools they attend, a lack of information about opportunities for earning college credit, and substantial tuition and fee requirements.
Today, our nation is competing in a dynamic global economy in which two assets—a skilled, versatile, and highly adaptable workforce, and the capacity to nurture creativity, research, and innovation—provide the decisive edge.
Technology is transforming the workplace and, in many ways, the nature of work itself. The transition to a knowledge-based economy is fueling demand for well-educated, technically proficient workers—in all sectors, across a wide range of occupations, and even for entry-level positions.
At the same time, millions of American adults lack the education and skills needed to compete in a postindustrial economy, relegating them to low-wage, low-opportunity jobs with little access to training and retraining programs. The same fate awaits hundreds of thousands of young people who leave school each year without a diploma or ill-prepared for college and the workplace.
America can no longer afford to be a nation divided into education haves and have-nots. It must find a way to provide all its citizens with the opportunity to attain higher levels of education and training than most have attained in the past.
Dual enrollment has evolved into a powerful strategy for promoting postsecondary access and success for a broad range of students. It may well be the most significant education reform since the rise of community colleges in the latter half of the 20th century.
Policymakers should embrace this promising reform, and do all they can to ensure that it achieves its full potential.
Vol. 24, Issue 42, Pages 38,48